02 February 2013

Refiner's fire, fuller's lye

Presentation of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

With the baby Jesus—just 40 days old—Joseph and Mary travel to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Since the birth of the Christ Child, the Blessed Mother has been considered legally “unclean,” that is, she has been deemed impure for the purpose of worship in the temple and restricted from touching anything considered sacred to the Lord. We must note here that her impurity is not moral or physical but legal. There is nothing morally or physically wrong about being a mother. The Law set this requirement—think of it as a 40 day fast—in order to emphasize the importance of offering a firstborn son to the Lord as a “first fruits sacrifice.” In the temple, Mary and Joseph meet Simeon, a devout and righteous man, and Anna, a prophetess. Both recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and acclaim him as the Savior. With Christ's presentation in the temple, we recall Malachi's prophetic questions: “Who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” Are we prepared for the refiner's fire and the fuller's lye? 

Where Mary was required by the Law to seek legal purification by offering her first born son in the temple, and thereby regaining access to the holy of holies, we are granted access to God by the “once for all” sacrifice of her son on the Cross. Some thirty years after Mary and Joseph present the Christ Child in the temple, Jesus offers himself—as both priest and victim—for the salvation of the whole world. The Christ's birth and death as one of us brings all of us to the threshold of the heavenly temple and invites us to step into the holy of holies, to follow his excellent Way, and submit ourselves to what the prophet Malachi calls “refiner's fire,” “the fuller's lye.” To be purified of all impurities, to be bleached of every stain: so that we may be presented to the Lord as spotless sacrifices on His altar. What do we sacrifice? Nothing and everything. Nothing we have and nothing we are is ours to give. And everything we have and everything we are is given. Because Christ the Lamb precedes us to the altar, our sacrifices are his and his are ours. . .IF, if we follow his excellent Way and submit ourselves to a life- long fast in love: surrendering hatred, anger, vengeance, greed, lust, jealousy, and pride. Are you prepared for the refiner's fire and the fuller's lye? 

Please forgive me this image, but it is more than apt. Have you ever been prepared for a colonoscopy, or some other sort of gastro-intestinal diagnostic procedure? The doctor can't do his best work if you are—shall we say?—“unclean.” It is necessary to spend some time purging the impurities from your system before a proper examination can be done. Think of your sins, all your vices—great and small alike—and imagine them poisoning your soul, imagine them clogging your spiritual system, restricting your access to the Lord's blessings. What we need is a way to flush those impurities, a way to wash away all those habits of mind and body that prevent us from absorbing the divine nutrients of God's graces. In the same way that we can be prepared physically for a medical exam, we can be prepared spiritually for the final exam of our soul. We call this the sacrament of confession. 

Mary endures 40 days of fasting from the temple and all things holy so that she might exult in presenting her son to the Lord. Because Christ presented himself to the Father on the Cross as a once-for-all sacrifice for us, we do not have to endure 40 days of fasting from the altar, or from His graces. We have immediate and unlimited access. There is no good reason for us live with the impurities that sicken us. Step into the refiner's fire and the fuller's lye. . .and be made clean! 

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  1. Nice! I really like homilies like this. Of all the different "styles" of homilies you write, this is my favorite.

    Second paragraph was top-notch. It really built on your question. Third paragraph put this in common terms/imagery quite well. Final paragraph tied it all together and made me long for confession.

    Really, quite excellent. Thank you.

    1. Please, tell me: what style is this? For me, this one started a little professorial and ended with a real Baptist note. All over the place. I enjoyed preaching it though.

  2. Style of a professorial Southern Baptist preacher.... :-)

    More later. Been a long day.

    1. I wish I could remember the other homilies which match this particular genre - it would make it easier to show you what I mean. I don't know that it is a particular style versus a conglomeration of similar elements which work together to produce a certain effect in me. But I'll take you through the thought process this homily engendered:

      Right off, I knew you were going to "teach" something, which always brings me to the edge of my seat in anticipation. And when you start this way, I also know that by the end of the first paragraph I will know where you are going with this "teaching" and can look forward to being challenged in some way. True to form, that is what you did. In this case I didn't learn anything new from the 1st paragraph, but the final three questions focused me and prepared me to learn (realize) something I didn't expect.

      The second paragraph took me from the general teaching of the first paragraph to the specific teaching that would apply to US/ME: "...we are granted access to God...for the salvation of the whole world...brings all of us to the threshold...and invites us to step into...to follow...to submit...to be purified...." And then you asked US/ME the question: "Are you prepared...?" Personally, this works very well for me, since it causes me to look back at what you have said, and apply it in a slightly different way than my initial reading - I apply it specifically to ME, and my situation, my life.

      Which prepared me quite well for the wonderful visual imagery of paragraph three. I have heard so many tales of colonoscopy prep, and my husband's wry humor at the name of the prep-drink most patients out here are given: "Go-litely". :-) Strange sense of humor, that! But, wow, that image was perfect,and it gave me a slightly different perspective of the Sacrament of confession: "What we need is a way to flush those impurities...." Knowing the difficulty most have with the prep for the med exam, it put a different, helpful spin on the experience of confession.

      And then you finished well with the final paragraph, revisiting the imagery of the refiner's fire and fuller's lye - encouraging us all to step into that fire, that "prep", and be made clean.

      You said this was fun to preach - it was fun to read. I don't know how the writing of it went, but it felt like you did not have a difficult time writing it. I said it made me long for confession, but that is not entirely accurate. It made me long for "being made clean", made me long to "follow His excellent way", to long to submit completely, and to be prepared. It made me long for that, because of my desire for the exultation that Mary felt in presenting her son to the Lord: such a deep longing that at times it is painful, knowing that I am not there yet, am not even close and will not be there until "the end". It's been a couple weeks since a homily brought tears to my eyes, but this one did, and helped me to focus and tune in to where I am heading and how to get there. And it made me smile, with the anticipation of that exultation.

      Sorry for the length of this response. But this is what your homilies do to me sometimes! Not sure I actually answered your question, though ;-).

    2. Geez. Your response is longer than my homily! :-) Thanks for taking the time and care to provide me with such a detailed critique.

      I'm trying to figure out my "style of preaching," so that I can better identify my strengths and weaknesses. I already know that I preach in a highly rhetorical way (i.e. literary way) and that I like to ask questions and answer them. Early on--2005-2008--I was often too literary, too rhetorically-fancy-pantsy and people would get lost in the language. Being with normal Catholics in the parish has helped with that tremendously.

    3. I can try to look at your homilies in that light, though not sure how much help I'll be. One strength I see in general is your life experience and education, and your ability to tie that in with the Scriptures. I enjoy the rhetorical style since it makes me think. I've been reading with an eye toward how the homily helps me to understand the readings, apply them to my daily life, and further my personal growth in holiness. Which 9 times out of 10 you do well. Now you want to figure out your style? Maybe first I need to know what styles there are. Yours seem to vary among about three, or four general types...but I have no idea how to name or define how those fit into a style. My husband always jokes that I'm the English Major in the house - forgetting that it was British Drama that I majored in. So all I can say with much certainty is that your homilies are not in the style of " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore"!! ;-)

    4. "So all I can say with much certainty is that your homilies are not in the style of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore!!'"

      Well, one must be grateful for the little things in one's rhetorical life, surely?